So, what does it mean when someone says they are “anti Institutional church”? Frankly, I don’t know. We first have to describe an answer to this question, What is “institution”? before we can answer this one, What is “anti” institutional church?
First, it appears to me that what most folks do is swap one kind of institutional church for another institutional church. It might gain traction to say you are against the Institutional Church but there is in the USA no such thing as the Institutional church. There are churches and some of them — most of them to be honest — are in denominations. Maybe the denominational church is what many mean by Institutional church? Not really since often as not they might be breaking away from non-denominational, megachurch, independent, local autonomy churches.
Second, let’s look at “institution.” I quote from Wikipedia:
An institution is any structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community; may it be human or a specific animal one. Institutions are identified with a social purpose, transcending individuals and intentions by mediating the rules that govern living behavior. The term “institution” is commonly applied to customs and behavior patterns important to a society, as well as to particular formal organizations of government and public services.
A couple observations:
1. Institutions organize human behaviors, so an Institutional Church is one that organizes the behaviors of church folks.
2. Institutions have a purpose, a mission, a vision, and the organization props up and guides behaviors toward those purposes, missions, and visions.
3. Institutions transcend individuals by mediating the group’s vision.
Institution is about organization and structure that shape individuals into a group-consciousness and that also transcends the individual, and there is no such thing as a church without organization, otherwise it is chaos or disorganization that cannot sustain itself.
To be anti Institutional church means, to me, to be against organization; or to be against the mission, purpose, and/or vision of a church; or it could mean the group is swallowing up my individuality.
Now this: Most who are anti institutional church are really against one kind of institutional church and for another kind of institutional church. Unless we are talking about mostly chaos, any functioning church is institutional — if it has a place to meet, if some are invited, if there are elders and deacons and eucharist and preaching (this is the core of institutionalizing the church), if it has music — led by those who organize music. Those who oppose one preacher, 11am services, etc, end up forming an alternative to each, which means they are institutional by being anti-institutional and they form alternative institutional organization. Both the Roman Catholic (institutional) church and the local house (institutional) church are institutional.
It’s a bold claim coming from these anti-institutional folks but it is mostly yet one more kind of Protestant protest against the system that forms yet another form of a church. Different institutionally, but still institutional.
Yet, to go at it alone — as Roger Williams eventually did — or to go at it with friends over beers or in one’s home or at a cafe, without elders and deacons, etc, is not so much anti-institutional church as it is non-church.
So, what makes the institution good and what makes it bad?